Why we have to tackle gender inequality for successful adaptation to climate change
The latest IPCC report is clear: climate change affects every person and every region of the planet, but its impacts are highly disproportionate and further exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. The people who have done the least to contribute to the climate emergency are most severely affected. Among these, women and girls bear the brunt of climate impacts.
Climate Change and Women’s “Triple Burden”
In the vast majority of communities across the world, women shoulder a heavier work burden inside and outside the home and work longer hours than men, often without labour regulations and social protection. This inequality is often referred to as the “triple burden,” where women simultaneously undertake a reproductive role (childbearing and domestic work), a productive role (subsistence production), and a community managing role (unpaid care work and provision of resources). Women are expected to earn an income, look after the home, children, and elderly dependents, and participate in community forums and activities.
Especially in rural areas, climate change is increasing the daily workload of women and girls by making rural livelihood activities more difficult and less reliable. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the slow-onset effects of climate change such as desertification or land and forest degradation, resulting in falling crop yields and loss of rangelands, force men to migrate to urban areas to seek work in increasing numbers. Women and girls stay behind in their rural homes to look after the homestead, bring up children, and care for the elderly. Their unpaid labour also involves finding new ways to adapt agriculture to the changing climate to earn a living and keep their communities intact. As the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, rural communities face ever-mounting pressure on natural resources critical to human and non-human life.
In Focus: Rural Women Adapting to Climate in Three Locations
The critical work of rural women in sustaining and enhancing rural development has been acknowledged by the UN General Assembly in 2007 with the declaration of the International Day of Rural Women, celebrated annually on 15th October. As we count down to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, we thought it crucial to highlight how climate change disproportionately affects women in frontline communities and why rural women should be front and centre of decision-making around climate change adaptation. We asked our colleagues from various parts of the world to reflect on how the climate emergency impacts rural women. Our colleagues Afsari Begum from Bangladesh, Monica Cuba from Bolivia, and Alicia Quezada, Miguel Aréstegui, Miluska Ordóñez, Antonella Russo, Percy Linares, Sara Benites, and Ronald Chávez from our Peru team shared some critical insights on how rural women tackle climate change impacts in frontline communities.
As in many other parts of the world, women and girls in Peru, Bolivia, and Bangladesh find themselves travelling longer distances to access adequate fuel (firewood or animal dung) and water supplies, leaving them with less time and energy for other activities to enrich their personal lives, such as getting an education or engaging in leisure time.
Earning a living is also becoming harder by the day. As seasons become more erratic and the quality of soils decline due to climate change, agricultural productivity is falling, forcing women and girls to spend more time to produce the same volume of food from the same land. For example, our colleagues point out that in Viso, in the mountains above Lima, Peru, households who used to harvest ten tonnes of alfalfa in one season are now harvesting just six tonnes – a 40% decline.
Despite the sobering reality of climate change impacts, our colleagues recounted with enthusiasm their work with rural women to find solutions to these challenges. For example, according to Monica Cuba, our colleague from Bolivia, the implementation of household water harvesting systems in the Chiquitano dry forest has allowed women to spend less time looking for water in rivers and reduced the need to purchase water for irrigation. A common thread in our colleagues’ experiences is the importance of recognising the existing knowledge systems and expertise rural women possess and building from these strong foundations. Our colleagues note that women in Bangladesh and Bolivia have an unrivalled wealth of knowledge about natural resources. They know where to graze their livestock and find water points for animals, harvesting, or home use. They observe how climate change affects river flow rates and the migratory patterns of animals. Rural women possess a unique understanding of their local context and indigenous knowledge of land and water to shape their daily activities pragmatically to face the challenges imposed by climate change.
In efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, a strong commitment to addressing the power imbalances that underpin gender inequalities in rural areas should be a priority at COP26 and beyond. Supporting local women leaders and helping build women’s collective power are critical strategies in enhancing communities’ ability to cope with climate impacts. For example, in Bolivia, Practical Action is working with women and girls to be active promoters and defenders of the environmental resources that our planetary health depends on, supporting their active participation in creating local economic development and environmental management plans. In Bangladesh, Practical Action and its partners work with community groups to analyse and articulate their priorities to the local government. This includes supporting women and men to develop community action plans in separate groups and then come together and compare their different priorities, helping men understand women’s priorities, which are often ignored or erased.
Women leaders from community enterprises in Peru and women promoters in Bolivia challenge preconceptions and prejudices about gender roles and capabilities by mobilising and leading their rural communities in adapting to climate change impacts. They take the lead in raising awareness in their communities about the sustainable management of forests, form platforms for the defence of conservation areas, and create spaces for dialogue, analysis and the defence of their territories.
Rural women leaders also undertake active roles in their communities to help men understand and acknowledge the inequalities in work burden between women and men to ensure workload and responsibilities are distributed more equitably. The process, however, can be painstakingly slow and needs to be conducted sensitively to mitigate the risk of backlash against these rural women.
Today, on International Day of Rural Women, we at Practical Action would like to take this opportunity to recognise how the climate crisis is exacerbating gender inequalities, with the disproportionate burden of impacts falling to rural women. It is also a great occasion to celebrate the climate change leadership that rural women exemplify around the world. In just over a fortnight, national delegations, experts, and environmental defenders will converge in Glasgow for COP26 to participate in what many commentators have characterised as our “last chance” to keep global heating to 1.5°C. As Practical Action, we know that only an inclusive and diverse COP can achieve the scale of climate action needed to address the climate emergency. The voices, knowledge, expertise, and leadership of rural women from frontline communities are critical to negotiating the inclusive, effective, and sustained solutions we all now depend on. As Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, famously said, “Climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution.”